2005: Turkeys were one of the many astonishing delights
the Americas sent back to Europe after contact. In this new book
from Italian publisher Centro Di (the text is in English), art historian
Sabine Eiche has assembled a delightful collection of art to illustrate
the turkey’s adventures in Europe.
Turkeys arrived from the West Indies at King Ferdinand’s
request in 1511. Initially regarded as some kind of peacock, turkeys
soon acquired the cachet of exclusivity as pets and cuisine for
the wealthy and noble. They graced courtyards and gardens of private
zoos. Tapestries and paintings of the period reproduced in the book
proudly display these exotic creatures.
The turkey's unusual appearance and delicious flavor spread its
fame rapidly across Europe. They were soon popular in England, Italy,
France, Germany and the Baltic states. A century after its initial
arrival in Spain, the turkey was being welcomed in India.
Its remarkable behavior and gobbling couldn’t avoid notice.
Comparisons to humans were irresistible, as Ms. Eiche documents.
First depicted by Italian and northern German Renaissance artists
for its novelty and startling appearance in the 16th century, by
1534 it was being painted as a symbol of stupidity in the Galerie
Francois Ier at Fontainebleu. Netherlandish artist Peter Brueghel
portrayed it as accompanying the personification of envy in 1558.
Back in the fledgling United States, Benjamin Franklin campaigned
to make the turkey the national bird in 1784. He described it as
“a Bird of Courage … that would not hesitate to attack
a Grenadier of the British Guards, who should presume to invade
his Farm Yard with a red Coat on,” although he conceded that
turkeys are “a little vain and silly, but not the worse emblem
In the 19th century, cartoonist Jean Grandville poked fun at a banker
by drawing him as a rotund turkey in 1867. In the 20th century,
political cartoonist Peter Brookes ridiculed Britain’s most
prominent party leaders by drawing them as turkeys.
Although turkeys have attracted derision from some, others have
appreciated their grandeur, including Picasso’s "pleasantly
plump mass of ruffled feathers."
Such rich material is often naturally funny. Ms. Eiche allows its
humor to emerge effortlessly, unexpectedly tickling the reader to
share a laugh.
The book's 65 illustrations, most of them in color, make this stroll
through history with turkeys a pleasure for the eyes as well as
the mind. Ms. Eiche has filled a significant niche with this lovely
and amusing book. As she quotes 20th-century writer Morton Thompson,
“Some topics cannot be done justice unless written with a
pen filled with gravy.” Gravy flows freely in her elegant
This book deserves to occupy the shelf of every serious turkey
fancier, as well as those who simply enjoy enriching their knowledge
of cultural and poultry history.
Christine Heinrichs is publicity director for the Society for
the Preservation of Poultry Antiquities. She lives in Madison, Wisconsin.